Design for Life
Highlights from the Singapore Institute of Architects Conference 2018
Last Tuesday (the 2nd of October), several hundred ticket holders convened at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre to hear some of Southeast Asia’s most interesting male* architects present their work. The occasion was the SIA’s annual conference, the professional core of Archifest, which this year took the overarching theme of ‘Design for Life’.
Conference-goers entering MBS from the waterside encountered the Archifest pavilion, designed by open call-winners Kite Studio Architecture, with engineering by Web Structures. Seeking to incorporate characteristics of ‘the ubiquitous HDB void deck’—the area beneath the government-built blocks that house the majority of Singaporeans — the pavilion’s lo-fi brick and rebar walls, and bamboo charcoal flooring enclosed a multi-purpose space for festival activities and exhibitions. Visitors were encouraged to customise the bricks with eco-friendly paint provided by headline sponsor AkzoNobel.
The contrast between the humble, organically changing pavilion and the glossy, consumerist hulk of the Marina Bay Sands complex offered an apt visual illustration of this year’s theme. ‘The spotlight has mostly been shone on iconic, spectacular projects, while the day-to-day architecture sits in its shadows,’ stated the curatorial team, under the guidance of SIA President Seah Chee Huang and Festival Director Yann Follain.
As an alternative, they propose to explore ‘the architect’s vision to respond to the true needs of humanity’ and the need for ‘design to give back to the community and enrich human life as a whole.’ In his opening address, Seah grounded these grand abstractions in the practicalities of regional events, reminding the audience of the previous week’s earthquake-tsunami disaster in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and the responsibilities of built environment professionals to protect life and strengthen social ties.
Conference keynote speaker Borja Ferrater, Founding Partner Architect of globally successful Barcelona-based family studio OAB, exhorted the audience to jettison perceived divisions between “commercial” and “craftsman” architects. He also offered examples from OAB’s substantial international portfolio to illustrate that a global firm, if working conscientiously with local partners, can still design in a contextually sensitive manner to achieve a sense of place. In comparison, the majority of conference speakers represented smaller-scale practices working in an embedded way within Southeast Asia.
Confident that ‘architects can help people change their lifestyle,’ Dam Vu of Vietnamese practice KIENTRUC O, shared two preschool projects for which existing residential buildings were remodelled into colourful, light-filled spaces for exploration. Realrich Sjarief of Jakarta-based R A W Architecture showed how his studio’s philosophy — integrating the need to beautify the world, to believe in something greater than oneself, and to practice mindfulness — manifested in built work. R A W’s Alfa Omega School was produced in close collaboration with skilled bamboo craftsmen, and in only four months, while their experimental studio space in Jakarta also encompasses a free school and public library.
In dialogue with Follain, Colin Seah of Singapore-based Ministry of Design called for new hybrid ways of approaching built heritage ‘as a continuous flow’; alternatives to strict conservation or total demolition. Heritage Architect and Professor Gerard Lico shared a detailed journey through the life of Manila’s Metropolitan Theatre, a Philippine Art Deco landmark that has been brought back from disrepair through a sustained and lively campaign of participatory conservation. Teo Yee Chin of Singapore’s Red Bean Architects used several urban case studies to explore how physical and programmatic connections with its surrounding city are what keep a building relevant and ‘alive’.
Markus Roselieb of design-build firm Chiang Mai Life Construction made an aggressive case for the expansive architectural potential of bamboo and earth, sharing examples of various buildings in Thailand that aim to bring these traditional materials into the 21st century, and calling for R&D investment to further explore their capacities. Doan Thanh Ha of Vietnam’s H&P Architects shared many examples of thoughtful, scaleable projects (many self-initiated) that put architecture squarely in the service of communities, especially in the rural context where the majority of Vietnamese people live and work.
Bringing the conversation back to densely urbanised Singapore, Siew Man Kok of MKPL Architects shared some reflections on what it means to design sustainable communities, given that they will evolve over decades and generations. Given the highly uncertain times in which we live — a point underscored by this week’s UN report on the urgent need to act on climate change — the conference was positive vote for life, and the architect’s role in helping to sustain it.
*The only female to appear on stage during the daylong proceedings was the anonymous young woman who quietly assisted with the ribbon cutting at the opening ceremony.
Text / Sarah Ichioka
Images / Courtesy of Archifest 2018